Ind. officer wellness unit looks to change stigma around caring for mental health, wellness

The unit, run by department officers, is building response and mentoring teams to assist officers before and after critical incidents


Kale Wilk,
The Times

HAMMOND, Ind. —Talking about mental health and wellness isn't always easy for police officers.

Sworn to serve and protect, they often put themselves last: after victims of crime, after witnesses. Even after those they arrest, whose constitutional rights must be protected.

Hammond police Master Sgt. Tracy Betustak, center, speaks with Master Sgt. Joseph Martinez to discuss officer wellness among Hammond police officers. (Photo/TNS)
Hammond police Master Sgt. Tracy Betustak, center, speaks with Master Sgt. Joseph Martinez to discuss officer wellness among Hammond police officers. (Photo/TNS)

Most people would be shocked to see the violence and trauma some officers witness on a routine basis.

"We're the ones that are expected to be stoic and strong in the face of adversity," said Master Sgt. Tracy Betustak, who took a full-time role leading the Hammond Police Department's new Officer Support and Wellness Unit in January.

Other members of the new unit include Lt. Rob Repay, Sgt. Carmen Ramirez and Officer Ben Stombaugh.

There is a growing awareness nationally that office suicides are a problem, and the new unit is working to combat the stigma associated with seeking help, Betustak said.

Nationally, more police officers took their own lives in 2019 than died in the line of duty.

At least 228 officers died by suicide in 2019, compared with 134 killed in the line of duty, according to data compiled by Blue H.E.R.O. The number of suicides is likely under-reported, because of the associated stigma, officials said.

"The prolonged exposure that we have to critical incidents and the trauma that we see, the victimization that we see — all the negativity takes its toll on us," Betustak said. "Over time, it will cause us to withdraw or be more cynical."

No Hammond officers have died by suicide in recent years. Betustak hopes the wellness unit not only prevents suicides, but helps support officers from the beginning of their careers through retirement.

Officers may have been hesitant to seek mental health care in the past, because they're afraid they could lose their badges and their guns if the admit they need help, said Lt. Steve Kellogg, the department's training supervisor.

Betustak hopes to change that culture and show officers a better way of balancing their professional and personal lives. Police Chief John Doughty's support has been instrumental in meeting that challenge, she said.

Betustak has been meeting with officers in small groups to discuss the new unit, she said.

Some come with preconceived notions that they will be forced to see a therapist. Before they leave, many tell her the unit has long been needed and share their own personal struggles with her.

"The reason they're telling me is because they want to support other officers," she said. "So, this peer support thing is building itself. They're coming up with so many great ideas for training and programs."

The department recently hosted an officer wellness symposium, which was attended by 20% of Hammond officers and police from 14 other agencies, Kellogg said.

In addition to serving as a resource and referral office, the new unit is building a critical incident response team and mentoring program for new officers, Betustak said.

Critical incident team members' focus won't be to discuss details of what happened during traumatic situations, but to determine what support an officer may need in the aftermath. Team members might pick up an officer's children, call a spouse or be an officer's advocate for the day.

Officers trained in mentoring will be paired with recruits shortly after they begin classes at a law enforcement academy. Regular communication will be required until recruits complete field training, Betustak said.

The unit also will maintain a library, including books on personal finance, marriage, parenting, leadership, nutrition, physical fitness and more. Every new recruit will be give a copy of "Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families" by Kevin M. Gilmartin.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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